Go on. Take a risk
Occasionally it’s good to experience something that makes you a little uncomfortable, like getting the hot Vindaloo over the mild, getting a number 2 haircut over the scissors and blow wave, or volunteering for Injection and Leech Bloodletting Practice Day at Nurse training.
Or then there’s the Tiger Mother. If you want a book that has all the fascination/repulsion elements of a train wreck or horror movie, get yourself a copy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua (not an affiliate link*). In it, she chronicles how she set about raising her children to succeed.
Be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted
It’s warts and all, and she doesn’t avoid what can be some ugly, catch your breath and wince moments. In fact, some of the moments are simply ferocious (she’s a tiger after all) as she pursues excellence with her children. But here’s the kicker. That her children seem actually to achieve excellence is what makes it so compelling.
How do they? Because of, or in spite of, their mother and her approach? Why did they? What did she do? And what can we learn?
Because we’re not going to review the book fully here, there are a number of comments and a fair amount of criticism regarding her book, including a widely read article in the Wall Street Journal, if you want to read further without buying the book.
In her defence, she claims, rightly enough, that this is her own account of her life as a Tiger Mother, and is not a parenting guide, but a chronicle of her life and how she changed as a parent. She notes that she retreats over time from the Tiger Mother to something a little softer, relenting where once she may not have.
All true, and some fascinating material for thinking about in relation to parents, children, and brains.
While stories and anecdotes are always interesting to read, let’s be careful, because, right off the bat, there is a key flaw in what she presents and it’s this. She sets up a simple dichotomy where none so simple exists.
She draws the contrast between what she sees as the Tiger Mother, a Chinese style, strict, controlled and authoritarian approach and what’s loosely called a Western approach, by which she means fundamentally permissive and liberal.
Now, while these styles may exist, albeit under different names, you’ll appreciate already that parents are not either permissive or strict, but on a continuum somewhere between the two extremes.
Moreover, there are other variables to include, such as whether parents are involved or uninvolved and whether they are responsive or unresponsive. Parenting is much more three-dimensional than either simply permissive or strict.
(If you want to read more on parenting styles from this perspective, you could start with Diana Baumrind, a regular contributor to and writer of Lifespan Development textbooks, and go from there.)
The Tiger Mother usefulness
Regardless of the criticisms, Chua opens up some fascinating questions about parenting styles, parental expectations of children, discipline and permissiveness, control vs choice and so on.
In the first instance, many critics have been quick to point out her own situation (her and her husband are law professors) and, therefore, education, social status, genetics and so on, in addition to some unfavorable feedback about her punitive style. So what about single parents, ethnicities and the like they argue? Great stuff.
But digging a little deeper, there are a couple of others questions of particular value, such as this one:
Could she have done what she did if her and her husband were poor?
Law professors do ok for income it seems. And then the most pivotal for us:
Is excellence born or made?
Is it already in us?
If you’ve ever read anything on raising kids, you’ll recognize that this is an old argument that’s been flogged for years. Is greatness born or created? Can we teach genius? Do we expect enough of our kids? Can my child be Beethoven? Or the slightly less interesting term, the nature/nurture debate. How much are we born with, and how much does are environment shape us?
And what does it all mean for us as parents? Could your child be Beethoven? If they really, really could, what’s our responsibility as parents? Are we doing enough ourselves? And if our kids are geniuses waiting to blossom, do we expect enough from them? And if they don’t become geniuses, then where did the system fall down. Is it our fault or our kids’ fault?
Sitting alongside this are the multimillion dollar industries promoting hot housing, the Mozart effect, baby Einstein and so forth. Have you availed yourself of all the tools your children need to excel?
This is weighty stuff and we’ll take a few posts just to scratch the surface. Short answer is this. Increasingly, as we understand the brain, we realise that we are more capable than we used to think.
Yes, there is more in us, but with conditions.
We’ve been getting there
We’ve been slowly building up to this already. First, we covered a bunch of material on attributions and explanatory styles, noting the emptiness of much educational praise which simply strokes self-esteem but achieves little else. It’s anti-genius stuff.
This led us to the work of Carol Dweck and praising effort over achievement. We saw how in that little example, the right environment made a significant difference to performance. That’s pro-genius stuff.
From there we went to how the brain reflects an approach like Dweck’s, in that we’re building neural pathways through repeated firing and adjustment, which we could call focused practice. Effort, reward, feedback = success. Pro-genius.
Now we get to Amy Chua and the Tiger Mother. It’s a good name. Great white shark would also be apt on occasions. She’s tough. Very tough. And her children are successful. She employs some definite pro-genius strategies, but perhaps some anti-genius stuff too.
There’s also the question of cost and benefit. Is what she achieves worth it? Does the means justify the end? Or are there other ways?
So here’s the take home bit
This is an extremely emotive read and subject, so love to get your comments. Here’s where we’re going in the next few weeks.
Do we expect enough from our kids, ourselves, our schools and workplaces?
If Chua is wrong, what’s the right way? Have others achieved the same with different strategies?
Could we be doing better by our kids?
Could our kids be doing better?
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Tiger Mother, Permissive parenting, Authoritarian parenting
What do you think?
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*An affiliate link means that if you click-through and then buy, I would get a few cents as the affiliate. In this case, no benefit to me here.
- Does Science Support the Punitive Parenting of “Tiger Mothering”? (scientificamerican.com)